Baghdad Dispatch: Fierce fighting in the central city
Unlike yesterday today began with an acute escalation in central Baghdad, particularly in al-Fadh and Sheik Omar districts where an American helicopter was hit around 9:30 this morning with ground fire and crashed near an old cemetery in the area. There are also conflicting reports that another helicopter got hit but survived the attack.
A Reuters report (from 4pm) says the US military has denied a crash occurred. News from al-Hurra (5pm) says nothing about attacks on helicopters but reports the fighting was part of a joint Iraqi US operation to capture large numbers of suspects "in order to gather intelligence."
During the morning more US and Iraqi forces rushed into the scene and cordoned the area while two f-18 fighter jets and some Apache gunships patrolled above. The fighter jets withdrew after a while.
The fighting then became more intense and at around 11 am several explosions were heard in the area but the cause remained unknown.
At around noon firefights erupted and the sound of heavy machineguns was heard. From my rooftop I could see Apache helicopters engage at least one target with 30mm canon fire and perhaps small rockets, I couldn't be sure because the sounds were overlapping, but zooming in with my camera I saw faint lines of smoke behind the patrolling Apaches. Seconds later I could hear the sounds.
At 1 in the afternoon the fighter jets returned to the scene, but this time only one f-16.
The tension and occasional clashes spread to involve a wide area in the center of eastern Baghdad including parts of Bab al-Mua'dam and al-Kasra.
A friend of mine who's a doctor at Baghdad's medical city said he and his colleagues were afraid to leave the complex because of the fighting going on in the streets.
Between 2 and 3 pm a few more explosions were heard and there was more heavy machinegun fire but now the situation has calmed down. At 5:20 it seems quiet from my place.
Ok, not exactly quiet, the last blast we heard 20 minutes ago turned out to be a suicide bomber who detonated himself (or his vehicle, not sure) somewhere in al-Waziriya not far from the main spot of fighting.
Yesterday passed peacefully. Peacefully meaning without any major incident recorded anywhere in the country.
I think it was a good decision to have an extended curfew, it prevented the clowns from organizing demonstrations in Baghdad, and bad things would've been very difficult to avoid.
The situation in Diwaniya has calmed down a little bit and most militiamen are off the street, reportedly after receiving orders from Moqtada.
This didn't mean the operation has ended. The troops are still conducting house-to-house searches.
Sadr's militias always employ the "hide your weapons" approach to end the crises they start whenever they are confronted with overwhelming force from the US and Iraqi military. I can't say for sure what good that does for them in the long run. One simply can't read a mind like Moqtada's. Perhaps it's one of their PR stunts for domestic consumption, to show that their will to build peace is what ends the fighting; that they withdraw from the streets not out of fear, but because they're doing it for "the good of the people."
It's always "we'll get our weapons off the streets" maneuver-the half solution that relieves pressure and allows them to keep their force for future mischief.
Anyway, this might not work our perfectly for them this time in Diwaniya. The troops entered the city with the intent to strike the militia hard and capture its leaders. A relative who lives there with whom I spoke on the phone last night said the troops are conducting raids on specific targets, aimed at capturing elements identified on a wanted list.
The commander of the 8th IA division in charge of the area was obviously suspicious of the demonstrations organized by the Sadrists in nearby Najaf (about 50km to the west). He realized that "demonstrators" could quickly become "reinforcements" to the militiamen his soldiers are fighting. He made clear last night on TV that no marchers from other cities would be allowed to enter Diwaniya.
Speaking of the Sadrists' pitiful demonstrations, Sadr's aides were hoping to gather a million marchers for yesterday but all they could manage were less than ten thousand, even when they bussed people from Baghdad and Basra.
The Arabic-speaking al-Alam Iranian channel claims the number was "hundreds of thousands" but that's just al-Alam, other channels and the footage we saw all put the number between 5 and 10 thousand. I have personally been to a demonstration of 10 thousand once and what I saw yesterday was definitely smaller.
Flying Iraqi flags in large numbers is another cheap trick combining methods from both Hezbollah and Saddam. Replacing partisan sectarian banners with the national flag was likely inspired from Hezbollah's rallies in Lebanon. Both movements desperately try to show themselves as patriotic movements because they realize others see them as Iran's tools.
On the other hand the way the flags were gathered is a trademark of the Ba'ath work; the flags that were carried during the demonstration as well as the flags that were seen hanging on walls in Baghdad were not donated by NGO's, nor bought with Sadr's money.
Elements of the Mehdi army paid visits to hundreds of shops and stores in several neighborhoods in Baghdad and "asked" the owners for money to buy flags; 6,000 dinars ($5) from stores on main streets and 2,000 dinars from stores in the alleys. This is exactly what the Ba'ath thugs used to do; using intimidation to steal hard-earned money from hardworking Iraqis to decorate their false demonstrations with posters and portraits.
Omar Fadhil also writes at Iraq the Model.